Review: “You Were Never Really Here” Brings A Rare Sense Of Intimacy To The Crime Thriller

It has been six years since writer-director Lynne Ramsay unsettled audiences with the brilliant We Need To Talk About Kevin. Now she returns with her own unique take on the crime-thriller in You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here - Joaquin Phoenix in a Lynne Ramsay filmSix years have passed since visionary writer-director Lynne Ramsay shocked audiences with We Need To Talk About Kevin. Now, having coaxed probably a career-best performance from Tilda Swinton in her unsettling 2011 drama about a high school shooting and its affect on the killer’s mother, Ramsay finds the best in Joaquin Phoenix.

In You Were Never Really Here he plays hitman Joe, a troubled war veteran who has turned his explosive anger towards saving young girls from sex traffickers. The film follows him as he becomes embroiled in an ugly conspiracy involving US senators after accepting a job to rescue the teenage daughter of a government official.

Based on Jonathan Ames’ book of the same name, You Were Never Really Here is a difficult film to define. There’s elements of revenge, paranoid conspiracy and crime drama but Ramsay isn’t interested in overloading the plot. Indeed, she strips the narrative bare, exposing her focus – hitman Joe – with a sense of intimacy that films of this nature rarely enjoy in American cinema.

You Were Never Really Here - Joaquin Phoenix in a Lynne Ramsay film

Ramsay’s camera explores Joe through invasive close-up, his point of view becoming our muddied, ambiguous perspective on a criminal underworld which he taints in blood through a blow of his hammer. Streamlining further through jump-cut flashbacks offering a glimpse into Joe’s traumatic past – violence in childhood, exploits in the military, assignments as a federal agent – Ramsay has more time to focus on her fascinating anti-hero, a suicidal but philanthropic gun for hire who, out of hours, spends his days caring for his aging mother.

Just like We Need To Talk About Kevin and the director’s brilliant tragedy Ratcatcher, You Were Never Really Here is uncompromising in its thematic execution, enveloping its audience in the troubling existence of its protagonist. You’ll better understand Ramsay’s approach when you consider the scene where Joe speaks to his middle man over the next job and the director’s camera lingers in close-up over the Jelly Bean’s the hitman puts in his mouth. It’s almost incidental but Ramsay finds a beguiling beauty in the crushing of confectionery between his fingers.

Ramsay asks us to fill the gaps; less self-assured hands would be inclined to offer far more exposition but the writer-director knows much of her story is told in the face of Phoenix, his measured performance framed by an unwashed, weary exterior. His dishevelled beard speaks for itself just as the scars of past battles pockmarking his skin add context to his frightening flashbacks.

You Were Never Really Here - Joaquin Phoenix in a Lynne Ramsay film

The Academy Award nominated actor taps into a source of feral energy that makes his brand of killing machine entirely authentic; the hammer, a comparatively primitive choice in a modern day United States where the gun is ubiquitous, being his favoured weapon. The fact he’s out of tune with conventional society is brilliantly complemented by composer Jonny Greenwood’s haunting injection of sounds searching for melody.

What’s refreshing in You Were Never Really Here is that Ramsay never seeks to exploit the violence. Some of Joe’s hammer blows happen off-screen, others appear on grainy, out of focus CCTV. The film strips away the genre conventions that may conspire to lessen its effectiveness, restructuring the crime/revenge thriller into something that has redemptive qualities at a primal level and one which defiantly steers clear of expectation when we arrive at the denouement.

Perhaps not as fine-tuned as We Need To Talk About Kevin or as chillingly profound as Ratcatcher, You Were Never Really Here is nevertheless a wonderfully immersive piece of filmmaking from a visionary director who has put her own unique stamp on a genre we thought we knew too well.

you were never really here, film review, four stars

Written by Dan Stephens

You Were Never Really Here - Joaquin Phoenix in a Lynne Ramsay filmDirected by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Released: 2017 / Genre: Thriller
Country: USA/UK/France / IMDB
More reviews: Latest | Archive

Top 10 Films reviewed You Were Never Really Here on DVD courtesy of Studiocanal. The film was released in the UK on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download on July 2.

Dan Stephens
About the Author
Dan Stephens is the founder and editor of Top 10 Films. He's usually pondering his next list, often inspired by his adoration for 1980s Hollywood, a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Diana Reply

    I cannot agree more with your assessment. Ramsay creates something different here, something entirely her own even though we also know that the story and especially Phoenix’s character is far from original. You are so right it is an intimate and compelling portrayal.

  2. Avatar
    Keith Reply

    Nice review. Absolutely love this movie but I kinda knew I would once I saw Ramsay’s name attached. She’s a gem.

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